Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights 2010- review

Jason1_grindstone5x7 copyKnott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt pioneered the concept of basing walk-through haunted attractions on movies, usually tied in with some new release (THE GRUDGE 2, BEOWULF, QUARANTINE), but over the last few years Universal Studios Hollywood has taken the idea to its ultimate degree, building haunts around hit horror franchises for its  Halloween Horror Nights presentation. Thus we saw mazes built around A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 2007 and 2008. Last year’s horrors were based on SAW, HALLOWEEN, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE. 2010 sees the return of the SAW maze, along with new mazes based on the remakes of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH.
Unfortunately, in aping horror film franchises, Halloween Horror Nights has become a little bit like one, churching out sequels and remakes that convey that “been there, done that” feel. Universal continues to succeed at its intended  goal, which is to bring horror movies to life, turning them into amazingly detailed walk-through mazes that immerse fans in the worlds of their favorite movie monsters. Unfortunately, focusing on individual films (such as the recent Freddy and Jason remakes) leads to a certain monotony. In each maze, Jason/Freddy jumps out at you in the first room, then the second room, then the third room, etc – and it’s always the same character with the same appearance. (The previous Elm Street and Friday mazes benefited from being based on franchises with lots of sequels, which offered some variety when it came to depicting the characters: for example, Jason could appear with a bag over his head, as in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II, instead of the familiar hockey mask.)
Here is a rundown of the horror-movie-inspired thrills and chils at Halloween Horror Nights’ 2010:
FRIDAY THE 13TH: KILL, JASON, KILL. Jason’s back, but this maze is remarkably different from the ones seen in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, Jason isn’t really given enough room to show off the difference between his current incarnation and the versions seen during previous Halloweens. The new Jason is supposed to take his cue from the performance by Derek Mears in the remake, who made the character more of an Olympic athelete, rather than the slow and steady menace that he was when played, most famously, by Kane Hodder in the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels VII through X (it was Hodder’s performances that set the style for Universal’s previous “Friday the 13th” mazes). Setting that aside, the new “Friday the 13th” maze does justify bringing the character back, by showing him in new settings and situations, with lots of new gore gags.
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A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: NEVER SLEEP AGAIN. Like the “Friday the 13th” maze, this one lives up to the promise of offering something new, this time a grim Freddy based on the 2010 remake. Unfortunately, the attempt fares less well. The remake’s new Freddy makeup is not that impressive when translated into the live medium – it looks like putty smooshed around the face. And by focusing on a single film, the maze looses the variety made possible by pulling the best bits and pieces from several sequels. The result loses the “Nightmare” on Elm Street: it’s fairly generic, with burlap tunnels and tight corridors that force you to walk past windows and doors from which Freddy can make his expectedly unexpected appearances. There area  few nice touches, fortunately: solid walls that disappear, revealing Freddy behind them, or that stretch as if pressed from behind (recreating a memorable image from the original film that was botched in the remake thanks to cartoony CGI).
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SAW: GAME ON. Against our expectations, “Saw: Game Over”turned out to be the highlight of 2009’s Halloween Horror Nights, so we are not complaining when we saw that this year’s incarnation is a virtual duplicate. There are a few nice gruesome bits included, such as the “rack-crucifix,” which neatly – well, not so neatly – twists off its victim’s arms. (We are not gore fans, but this one effect is almost worth the price of admission -although flashing lights and screams may distract you from seeing what’s happening.) The interesting point here is that most of Universal’s mazes try to feature the villain as much as possible, but “Saw: Game On” maintains Jigsaw as an off-screen voice, focusing attention on the mechanical traps and torture devices. Our only disappointment was with a recreation of a scene from the original SAW, in which one victim must dig a key out of the body of another victim in order to unlock a device before it kills her; for some reason, the actress playing the role was camping it up, simply flopping her fingers through bloody guts as if playing a game, not engaged in a life-or-death race against the clock.
VAMPYRE MAZE
VAMPYRE: CASTLE OF THE UNDEAD. This is set in Universal Studios year-round walk-through attraction, thes House of Horrors, which was designed to provide a sort of tour through the history of the horror genre, starting with old-fashioned classic horror movies like DRACULA and moving through the decades to include PSYCHO, CHILD’S PLAY, etc. For the last couple years, Universal Studios Hollywood has taken to re-branding the attraction for Halloween: last year it was “Chucky’s Funhouse”; this year it is “Vampyre: Castle of the Undead.” The layout and sets remain much the same – this is a fixed location – the main difference is that the walk-through is haunted by a bunch of ugly vampires based on a comic-book tie-in. The inspiration here seems to be to go anti-TWILIGHT, which is fine with us, but that will take you only so far. The vampyres need something of their own to make them memorable, beyond the fact that they are not like Edward Cullen; what we get are fairly generic, if effective at hissing and scaring in the dark. There is also a problem with the setting: House of Horrors is designed to feature several different environments: in some the vampyres seem appropriate (like Dracula’s Castle); in some they do not (like Chucky’s toy story or Frankenstein’s laboratory). There is corridor of mirrors that we do not remember from years past – creating some visual distraction that allows the vampires to make effective surprise appearances from concealed doors, and there is a very effective bit at the very end, with a headless corpse that turns out to be alive.
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ROB ZOMBIE’S HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES: IN 3D ZOMBIEVISION
It may be Zombievision, but it’s barely 3D. The flimsy cardboard spectacles create some color separation that makes certain highlighted objects stand out, but for the most part the techniques does not yield particularly memorable results. The walk through the various ghoulish scenes is creepy enough to be worthwhile, but the characters have not truly achieved the cult status that makes them ideal choices for a Halloween maze. Rob Zombie’s fans will probably feel differently – and have a great time – but the average Halloween enthusiast will be less sanguine.
TERROR TRAM BACK LOT TERROR TRAM: CHUCKY’S REVENGE is another awkward attempt to insert the killer doll into a location where he does not fit: last year it was in the House of Horrors; this year it is on the backlot. It’s starting to feel like a pay-or-play situation, with an actor under contract who gets slotted into some movie just because the studio has already paid his salary and wants to get something back for its investment rather than letting him collect his check for doing nothing. The problem here is that, in spite of numerous sequels, the CHILD’S PLAY films were always a second-rate franchise, and although talking dolls are always creepy and unnerving, the tiny tike is just not credible as a serial killer.
To some extent, Halloween Horror Nights acknowledges this by not featuring Chucky very much on the walking part of the tour (I saw one small actor in a mask and costume, a stationary doll or two, and some pint-sized silhouettes). Instead, most of the monsters are storm-troopers with de rigueur chainsaws. There are also some nicely camouflaged “plant” monsters, who blend in with the vegetation on the dark hillside.
Chucky is truly featured only on the video played on monitors aboard the tram, and truth be told, this footage is amusing – a parody of true-life documentaries charting the fading careers of celebrity has-beens. Chucky is seen in a montage of clips and still that portray him descending into drink as the career opportunities fade. In a gambit that borders on bad taste – but is pretty funny – we are told that the official explanation for the devastating 2008 fire on Universal’s back lot was a cover story; the real culprit was a vengeful Chucky, angry at the way the studio had abandoned him.
The facades and scenery are more or less the same as in previous years, but retroffited to accommodate Chucky (i.e., it’s dolls hanging from the tree, not Jason’s victims). Also, the path has been altered in some cases to give you a slightly different view as you pass from the Bates Motel to the Psycho House, where you can see more “Mothers” (i.e., Norman Bates in drag) than you can shake a stick at. The effect is more campy than frightening.
The airplane crash site is just as awesome as ever, but the storm troopers do not do much to enhance it. In past year’s, this area worked best when used to convey a sense of apocalyptic horror, in which the world seemed to be in total chaos, with zombies feeding on helpless victims in the yards of nearby homes. If Universal really wants to do something interesting with this area next year, they should fashion it into something based on LOST – now that would be interesting.

CONCLUSIONS

Halloween Horror Nights would be better if it made greater use of its own classic movie monster movie legacy. It is certainly a shame that, on the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchock’s PSYCHO, Universal Studios could not have found some way to feature the famous franchise. Yes, one could argue that Norman Bates is dated, but so is Chucky. Canning the killer doll in favor of Norman – or just about any other Universal monster – would be an easy improvement (and it would tie in nicely with the back story for this year’s Terror Tram).
Bottom Line: If you have not been to Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights, you really owe it to yourself to make the effort. However, if you have attended on previous occasions, there may not be enough new and novel frights to make a return trip an absolute necessity. If you have not already seen King Kong 360 3-D and the Simpsons motion-simulation ride, this is certainly a good opportunity to do so.
By the way, if Universal was going to bring back both Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees for Halloween Horror Nights 2010, would it have really killed them to stage a Freddy vs. Jason fight somewhere on theme park’s lot?
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FearNet Gets New Head, Launching Cable

FEARnetLogoVariety reported on Thursday that FearNet, thus far just a Video On Demand and Website service, has landed a new President and General Manager to lead it into its debut as a full-time cable entity.
Peter Block, producer of the SAW franchise and former President of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate, will take over from Diane Robina, who was running  FearNet while also serving as an Executive Vice President at the TV Guide Network. 
FearNet is poised to launch as a high-definition cable channel on October 1st of this year.  It’s co-owned by Sony Pictures TV, Lionsgate and Comcast.
The Comcast connection may have contributed the On-Demand service’s   disappearance in April of 2009  from many areas served by Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse Communications. This includes some major markets, including New York City.
According to their press, FearNet as an On-Demand Service is  “available in over 28 million homes on Comcast, Cox Communications, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-Verse, Insight Communications, Bresnan and Guadalupe Valley Systems.” 
However, there have been as yet no deals announced regarding any cable companies signing up to carry FearNet as a “linear” cable station.
In many areas, Univeral’s CHILLER chanel is already established, which might make the new-comer a tough sell. Lionsgate’s library of newer horror films could be a sweetener, assuming the cable rights to the properties are not committed elsewhere.

MGM probing 'The Outer Limits'

OUTER_LIMITS_title_CVariety reports that the financially-embattled MGM has retained SAW series writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan to write a feature film version of THE OUTER LIMITS.
In a scenario that sounds a a bit more like THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the company that is unable to raise the cash to make another James Bond film or greenlight THE HOBBIT, has choosen to pay the pair a fee in the “mid-six figures” for a movie based on an anthology TV series. The script is due in October. Their debt extension expires September 15th.
Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe they’re recieving strange transmissions. The Form the film will take is a Thing Unknown*.  Will it be an anthology, like the TWILIGHT ZONE movie, or a stand-alone film?
The original OUTER LIMITS ran for just under two seasons on ABC,  from 1964-65. Produced by Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stephano the first year and Ben Brady in the second season, the show was an hour-long anthology that focused on science fiction. But it was often a strange, film noir-ish look at the field, with one foot in the laboratory, and the other in a haunted house. 

The Awe and Mystery of THE OUTER LIMITS
The Awe and Mystery of THE OUTER LIMITS

The term Gothic Science Fiction has been used to describe the moody black and white series, and it fits. Sometimes the episodes served as cautionary tales, with downbeat endings, while others celebrated the human spirit and noble aspirations.  It was like watching a compressed sci-fi movie, told in 60 minutes.
A revived version of the series ran seven seasons, airing from 1995 to 2002, beginning on Showtime, and continuing on The Sci-Fi Channel. 
Produced by Pen Desham, Richard Barton Lewis, and others, some episodes of the original program were reprised and updated for the new series.
In my opinion, the show was much more inconsistent in style than the original, and often seemed to have general air of pessimism and an anti-scientific tone. Some endings seemed to go out of their way to “snatch defeat from the claws of victory”.
But who can argue with a seven-year success?
* The Form of Things Unknown was the last episode of the first season of the original OUTER LIMITS— my little joke.

Sense of Wonder: Counting Horror, Fantasy & Sci-Fi Franchises on One Hand?

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In this post about SAW 3-D, being touted as the finale installment in the Jigsaw saga, Lionsgate president Jason Constantine makes the following statement about the longevity of the SAW franchise:

“You can count on one hand the franchises that lasted seven years — and every year, no less,” says Jason Constantine, Lionsgate’s president of acquisitions and co-productions. “It became part of pop-culture discourse.”

This strikes my as slightly myopic in terms of the history of horror, fantasy and science fiction film franchise. Off the top of my head, here are several more than you can count on one hand – unless you are a polydactyl alien from a galaxy far, far away:

  • The Universal Pictures Frankenstein series began in 1931 with FRANKENSTEIN and continued through 1948 with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, totaling eight films.
  • Toho Studio’s original Godzilla franchise began in 1954 with GODZILLA (a.k.a. GOJIRA) and took a breather after TERROR OF MECHA-GODZILLA in 1974. The franchise revived in 1985 and lasted until GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER in 1996, then resumed again in 1999, wrapping up with GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in 2004, with 26 films on its resume.
  • The Hammer Films Frankenstein series began in 1957 with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ended in 1974 with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, totalling six films (not counting the aberration known as HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN)
  • Hammer’s Dracula series began in 1958 with HORROR OF DRACULA and ended in 1974 with LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (a.k.a. THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA), totaling eight films (nine if you count BRIDES OF DRACULA, in which the Count does not appear).
  • The James Bond franchise launched in 1962 with DR. NO and continued until QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008, totaling over 20 films. (There was a haitus in the 1990s, but still this is a long-lived franchise).
  • HALLOWEEN started its reign of terror in 1978, which lasted through HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION in 2002. The franchise started up again in 2008 with a remake.
  • FRIDAY THE 13TH began in 1980 and lasted through 2003’s FREDDY VS. JASON, before launching a remake last year.
  • A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET arrived in 1984 and officially ended with FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE in 1991 – barely six years. But then the franchise started up again in 1996 with WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, followed by FREDDY VS. JASON in 2003, and then a remake this year.

Well, that makes eight. I guess we’re not supposed to count the ALIEN franchise and George A. Romero’s sequels to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), because the films were spaced out at long intervals: the ALIEN films extend from 1979 through ALIENS VS. PREDATOR in 2007; Romero’s latest, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, arrived earlier this year.
If we include non-sequel franchise, we get the Vincent Price Poe movies from HOUSE OF USHER in 1960 through THE OBLONG BOX in 1969. Extending past the real of cinefantastique, we get lengthy franchises devoted to Sherlock Holmes and other screen detectives, not to mention such low-brow fare as Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule.
Let me know if there are any I missed.
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Byrne and Wilson Cast in The Astral


Actor Patrick Wilson
Actor Patrick Wilson

Bloody Disgusting have the scoop that director James Wan’s (SAW, DEAD SILENCE) next horror film is coming together as Patrick Wilson (WATCHMEN, HARD CANDY), Rose Byrne (28 WEEKS LATER, SUNSHINE) and Barbara Hershey (THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, FALLING DOWN) have now all been cast in THE ASTRAL.

THE ASTRAL (previously known as INSIDIOUS) sees Wan re-teaming with his SAW co-writer Leigh Whannell and follows a young family which makes the terrifying discovery that the body of their comatose son has become a magnet for malevolent entities. Meanwhile his consciousness lies trapped in a dark and insidious realm known only as ‘The Further’.
The film has a great cast (especially Wilson, who recently impressed me in both WATCHMEN and LITTLE CHILDREN) but nothing that Wan has done since SAW has been anywhere near as good as his début.  Hopefully the fact that he’s back working with Whannell will change things and make THE ASTRAL a return to form for the director.
THE ASTRAL has no definitive release date but expect to see it appear sometime in 2011.

New Horror for Saw Director


Director David Hackl
Director David Hackl

Shock Till You Drop have the scoop that David Hackl is planning to adapt Vince Churchill’s horror novel, THE BUTCHER BRIDE, into a new film. Heckl was the director for SAW V, production designer on three other SAW films and was set to direct SAW VII 3D until he was given the boot at the last minute.

J.R. Reher has adapted the script for Hackl’s film but the books plot is as follows:

“Thirty years ago, a depraved assault during a Halloween costume ball shattered a young woman’s mind, turning her into a brutal mass murderer. Dressed in her rival’s blood-soaked wedding gown, the legend of the Butcher Bride was born. Now, decades later, everyone who enters the Silas Mansion will encounter a frightening spirit ravenous to satisfy perverse appetites. Death is the only escape. Here comes The Bride…”

Based on this synopsis the film, if handled correctly, sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Hackl wouldn’t have been my first choice for director though; none of the SAW sequels stood up to the brilliant of the first film and his entry was no better than the rest. Regardless, we’ll keep you updated with any and all news on THE BUTCHER BRIDE as it emerges.

Dread Central talks to SAW VII writer Patrick Melton

DreadCentral.com interviews screenwriter Patrick Melton, who along with Marcus Dunstan wrote the excellent monster movie FEAST, leading to gigs on the last few SAW sequels. Melton discusses the unhappy situation on the latest SAW sequel, which saw SAW VI director Kevin Greutert pulled off PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 when Lionsgate exercised their contractual obligation to bring him back for SAW VII, but adds that he thinks Greutert will pull things together on the production, which is about halfway finished. Says Melton:

“It’s definitely the most expensive and ambitious Saw movie that we’ve done. Some of it is in response to last year’s Saw VI, which, while being the most critically acclaimed Saw film in a while, didn’t do particularly as well (at the box office) as everyone would have hoped, so we are going pretty far with this one in terms of the scale and intensity of the traps and the amount of twists, especially into the third act, which is just a plethora of twists and reveals.”

Up next for the team of Melton and Dunstan is a proposed sequel to THE COLLECTOR, which was penned by the team and directed by Dunstan.

“…we are seeing if we can work out some sort of a deal for us to write it and for Marcus to direct, but right now it’s just in the deal stage. It is a possibility. I couldn’t imagine it being made without Marcus directing it.”

Box Office: Bee outbuzzes Saw

Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films ceded the top box office slot to a non-genre title this weekend, with the debut of AMERICAN GANGSTER coming in at #1 with $46.34-million. That did not stop BEE MOVIE, Jerry Seinfeld’s computer-animated comedy, from buzzing to a strong opening as well., earning an estimated $39.1-million in 3, 928 theatres.
These two debuts forced SAW IV down to the #3 position, where it earned $11-million – approximately one-third of its debut only a week ago. Despite the sharp decline, the sequel has earned $51.1-million – better than average for horror films this year.
30 DAYS OF NIGHT also took a little dip, from third to fifth place. In its third weekend, the vampire flick sucked $4-million from ticket buyers, raising its three-week total to $34.2-million.
Meanwhile, the re-issue of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (which is playing 3D engagements in 562 theatres) dropped out of the Top Ten, falling from #8 to #11. The 1993 film earned an additional $1.54-million; so far, this go-round on U.S. screens has added $12.8-million to the box office totals.
Read the complete Top Ten here.